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Home > Media Reiews > Weekly Review Last Updated: 14:57 03/09/2007
Weekly Review #47: May 13, 2002

Asylum Case a Matter of Prestige for Japan

John de Boer (University of Tokyo)

A diplomatic dispute has erupted between Japan and China over a recent event involving five North Korean asylum seekers who tried to rush into the Japanese consulate in Shenyang, China on 8 May. The crux of the row revolves around whether or not Chinese police officers entered the Japanese consulate with the consent of Japanese authorities in order to arrest two of the asylum seekers who had managed to reach the visa application section inside the compound. The Chinese government maintains that a Japanese official at the consulate gave explicit consent. In stark contrast to this, the Japanese foreign ministry argues that no permission was given to the Chinese police and that their forcible entry constitutes a grave breach of the Vienna convention, which stipulates that the premises of diplomatic missions are inviolable. After having been tipped off in advance about the incident, the international media was on hand to visually document exactly what transpired in front of the consulate. However, many questions remain as to what went on inside the compound. Several days later, the international media has yet to report a consensus.

All of this took place amidst a backdrop of intensified stormings into foreign embassies located in China by asylum seeking North Koreans. In March, twenty-five North Koreans rushed into the Spanish Embassy in Beijing and were eventually transferred through a third country to South Korea. In response, the Chinese government, which is required by law to return all North Koreans found illegally in the country, has intensified security measures to prevent any further incidents from happening. Nevertheless, a month and a half later, five North Koreans sought refuge in a Japanese consulate and two in a US consulate in China's northeastern city of Shenyang. Both the Financial Times and the New York Times claim that they have received communications from organizations and individuals assisting in the asylum strategy that "others will follow".

The dispute between China and Japan is not only about the fate of these asylum seekers who were placed into Chinese custody. Rather, it involves matters of sovereignty and ultimately prestige. This incident has reinforced the lack of trust existing between the two countries and has fueled an unhealthy sense of animosity and rivalry over leadership in Asia between the two.

Within hours of the incident, the Japanese foreign ministry issued a statement denouncing acts carried out by the Chinese military police guarding the Japanese consulate and demanded that the two asylum seekers who were arrested while inside the compound be returned to Japanese authorities. Several high ranking Japanese politicians including Prime Minister Koizumi described the incident as a trampling of Japan's sovereignty and requested that the Chinese government issue an official apology. According to the Singapore Straits Times, cabinet member Jun Murai called the act "outrageous" and went on to described that, "it can be said that they abducted these people, who had reached the visa application section and were trying to fill out an application". Japanese embassy officials were quoted by the BBC as calling the incident, "extremely problematic and regrettable". They went on to argue that the Chinese police had entered despite demands by Japanese consular officials that the two be left inside the building. Also quoting a Japanese embassy spokesman, the Washington Post reported that the Chinese police had entered the consulate without permission to seize the two North Koreans.

The Chinese government has flatly denied these accusations and has claimed that the guards received permission from the Japanese deputy consul before entering the consulate and that they had "acted to ensure the safety of Japanese diplomats". The Associated Press quoted a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Kong Quan, as stating that a Japanese consul had even thanked Chinese officials for their efforts to take away the five asylum seekers.

Several media reports tend to confirm the Chinese version. The Associated Press cited an NHK broadcaster who described that a Japanese consulate staff simply looked on as the two North Koreans were tied up. In light of further video evidence depicting a passive attitude on the part of consulate officials, Japan's deputy chief cabinet secretary, Kosei Ueno, criticized the staff at the consulate for allowing Chinese police to act inside the Consulate without Tokyo's consent.

Complicating matters even further was Kong's claiming that the Japanese police had entered the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo on 15 May 1998 without consent to arrest a man of unknown identity.

All of this has contributed to a heightening of tensions and mistrust between China and Japan, who have been depicted in the international media over the past year as heading towards confrontation. Judging from various media reports and government statements, it is still impossible to know exactly what transpired at this Japanese consulate. The fact is that this dispute goes far beyond the fate of these North Koreans. Japan has never been friendly in the past to those who have applied for asylum and it is doubtful whether Japan would have offered refuge to these individuals.

At issue is the question of prestige. Regardless of what really happened, if the Chinese refuse to issue an apology and if Japan continues to insist that it never granted permission of entry, the final outcome will translate into a message that China does not respect Japan. This may encourage hawkish elements in the Japanese government to pursue hard-line policies against China and will ultimately increase instability in the region. Cooler heads will have to prevail in order to prevent this incident from getting out of hand.


  • Elain Lies, "Japan denies China report over N. Korean defectors", Reuters, 11 May 2002
  • Christopher Bodeen, "China claims Japan consular staff consented to removal of N. Koreans from consulate", The Associated Press, 11 May 2002
  • "Japan protests China asylum move", CNN, 10 May 2002
  • Hau Boon Lai, "Japan slams Chinese intrusion", Singapore Straits Times, 10 May 2002
  • Elizabeth Rosenthal, "North Korean Asylum Seekers Storm Consulates in China", The New York Times, 9 May 2002
  • "Tokyo blasts consulate staff in China for being too soft", Japan Today, 9 May 2002
  • Philip P. Pan, "A dash towards freedom in China", The Washington Post, 9 May 2002
  • "Japan-China spat over N. Koreans", The BBC, 9 May 2002
  • "China Detains 5 in Alleged Asylum Bid", The LA Times, 9 May 2002
  • Bryan Shin, Richard McGregor and Andrew Ward, "Japan accuses China of breaking asylum rules", The Financial Times, 9 May 2002

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